By Frank Alkyer | Published February 2023
In an era of making singles that cater to the perceived attention span of the listening public, Lakecia Benjamin shows y’all how to throw down an album — an amazing album, at that. With Phoenix, Benjamin’s fourth studio recording, the alto saxophonist crafts a work themed on positive woman power with the help of producer Terri Lyne Carrington and an amazing cast of contributors. Those contributors start with activist Angela Davis and her spoken-word insight on “Amerikkan Skin,” the album’s opening cut. A police siren, gun shots and the voice of someone in pain launch the tune before Davis begins: “Revolutionary hope presides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history. This is not the way things are supposed to be.” Benjamin and trumpeter Josh Evans fly the melody in unison over the driving beat laid down by Enoch (EJ) Strickland on drums and Ivan Taylor on bass. By the time the solos kick in, a few things are obvious: Benjamin and company have something to say; this is musical storytelling at its finest; and your toes are still tappin’. The musicianship on display throughout this 12-tune set is so good. Benjamin’s work is a given. She’s as gifted as they come on alto. Evans fires. He’s an underrated star ready to burst. Victor Gould on piano and organ plays so tastefully, giving each spot just the right amount of soulful feeling. Taylor and Strickland lock down and drive the beat throughout with taste and abandon. As for the guests, Benjamin pulls in some impressive friends and mentors. For the album’s title track, Georgia Anne Muldrow, the amazing jazz-adjacent multi-instrumentalist, gets into some crafty synth action. “Mercy” features vocalist Dianne Reeves, who trades fours with Benjamin during a thoroughly enjoyable moment. Benjamin arranged pianist Patrice Rushen’s piece “Jubilation” for the album, then got the legendary musician to play on the cut. It’s special. One of this listener’s favorite moments is poet Sonia Sanchez’s spoken-word dueting with bassist Taylor on “Peace Is A Haiku Song.” That dovetails into the uplifting “Blast,” which pairs that poetry with a majestically grooving tune. There’s a tribute to John Coltrane (“Trane”), one of Benjamin’s guiding lights, and another to artist Jean Michel Basquiat; each thoroughly rings true. And “Supernova,” which features the voice and thoughts of Wayne Shorter, just leaves you wanting more. That can be said for the entire album. This one will appear on many best-albums-of-the-year lists by the time we get to the end of 2023. It’s just that good.